He’s worked with rabble-rousing musicians like Fugazi and Patti Smith, and chronicled the anti-corporate struggles of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Now with Museum Hours, writer-director Jem Cohen has made a drama that surprises with its ruminative gentleness. There’s still a provocative undercurrent to this part factual, part fictional study of the friendship that blossoms between a soft-spoken Viennese museum guard (Bobby Sommer) and a Canadian woman (Mary Margaret O’Hara) visiting her dying cousin in Austria. (Ready yourself for the exhilaratingly heady and heated real-time lecture on the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.) But the overall mellowness is a bracing turn for an artist unfairly ghettoized as an underground firebrand, and something that will hopefully draw a wider audience—perhaps those searching for the platonic complement to Richard Linklater’s Before… series—to his unique body of work. TONY spoke with the 51-year-old filmmaker in his Brooklyn apartment, a week before the movie’s New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest.
Time Out New York: So many films today are sensory assaults, whereas this one is very contemplative and inviting. Did the need to make Museum Hours arise out of an impulse to make something different from the norm?
Jem Cohen: Contemplative is one of those words that sends three quarters of the general populace fleeing toward Iron Man 7. [Laughs] We’re all bombarded, we’re all being spun around in a blender, and my response to that is not to provide more of it in the films that I make. I think people are ready for a kind of oasis. On the other hand, this movie has a lot of very down-to-earth dialogue, and sometimes it’s even kind of goofy. For those who know my past work, I think the general consensus would be that this is quite accessible. Of course, I’ve always believed in making accessible work. I always thought that if you concentrate on the everyday world that we live in, then there’s something there for everybody.
Time Out New York: Some of your past work—like the Fugazi documentary Instrument (2003)—has more of an agitprop feel. Do you think something outwardly gentle like Museum Hours can be similarly challenging?
Jem Cohen: I don’t think I’ve ever really done agitprop. Even when I did some Occupy Wall Street newsreels, they were very observational and didn’t really tell anybody what to think. I tend to base my work primarily around observation. But I really like the idea that some people will go to Museum Hours and just see it as two people’s friendship evolving, and it might never occur to them that there’s a bigger discussion going on about reclaiming a personal relationship with art. Other people might really enjoy that it’s a journey through unseen Vienna—a city portrait. It’s kind of all these different movies in one; its primary function is to say, “Hey, how about a movie where all of these things are going on?” I wanted to make something that was simultaneously straightforward and mysterious.
Time Out New York: So much of the movie is dependent on casting, on getting the right chemistry between the two leads. How did you ultimately decide on Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O’Hara?
Jem Cohen: Bobby’s a non-actor: I first met him when he was working as a driver for a film festival in Vienna. I liked his voice and then, in 2007, I was commissioned by the Viennale to do a live-music-plus-film project. It was called Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin, and Bobby read texts by a great novelist named Joseph Roth. He’d had a lot of odd jobs, a lot of interesting life experience, and I just thought it would be nice to work with him again. Meanwhile, I was rolling these ideas around in my head about art—in particular about this museum in Vienna, the Kunsthistorisches. I started to think that a museum guard would be a perfect kind of conduit between art and the larger world. I also love that museum because it has the finest collection of Bruegels in the world, and I felt there was something fascinating in Bruegel that related to my own work as a documentary filmmaker. There was this reverberation that I sensed over a few years of visits to the museum, and I somehow wanted to take that on.
Time Out New York: And Mary Margaret?
Jem Cohen: Mary Margaret was someone I had seen as a musical performer almost 25 years ago; I was just knocked out by her. I was in contact with her over the years and always hoped to film her. I mostly knew her as a musician, though she’s not a non-actor—I particularly loved her small but very vivid part in Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer’s Candy Mountain . I also knew that she was a natural-born comedian in a family of natural-born comedians, and that she’s very perceptive. She reads to me like a real person, as does Bobby. I asked her to take this leap with us, and she did.
Time Out New York: Let’s talk about the logistics of shooting. This is a film that mixes documentary and fiction very beautifully. In the director’s notes, you say you had to “invite the world in,” you couldn’t block anything off. How did you manage that?
Jem Cohen: Part of my arrangement with the museum was that I would not bring in a big movie apparatus that would interfere with the regular functioning of the place. So mostly we shot when the museum was open. We didn’t use lights, which I didn’t want because the light is incredibly beautiful in there. That allowed us to have a very small footprint, but it also allowed for wonderful real people who were wandering through the museum to wander into our movie.
Time Out New York: Like the one woman who breaks the fourth wall and smiles?
Jem Cohen: Yeah, which is actually one of the things I get the greatest kick out of in the whole movie. Usually when people break the fourth wall in films they’re being self-reflexive, admitting that we’re watching a movie. That wasn’t what I was interested in at all. The moment just felt very natural—a sense that we’re all making this together, that we’re all in this together. Things like that happen and they’re a kind of pleasure—one that you usually cut out. I just left it in.
Time Out New York: Patti Smith is listed as one of the film’s producers. Could you talk a bit about her involvement and influence?
Jem Cohen: Patti wasn’t so directly involved in making the movie. But I’ve known her for a while; I’ve done a lot of collaborations with her and I feel that Museum Hours is implicitly a continuation of a discussion that she and I have had for a long time. But it’s also a discussion she’s been having with the world, about how art isn’t something that should be separate from people’s lives. That it’s really like a brick that should always be thrown through the window. Her being listed as an “executive producer” is kind of an inside joke to us. But the film is also a celebration of her and my mutual embrace of art as a necessary part of life.
Museum Hours opens June 28.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich